Could there be a link between bleeding gums and Alzheimer’s disease? A group of scientists from around the world believes there is evidence of such an association.

Chronic gum disease, or gingivitis, manifests itself as bleeding gums. It is caused by a strain of bacteria known as porphyromonas gingivalis and is relatively common. Approximately 33 percent of the population suffers from it. That’s the bad news. The good news is that scientists have developed a new medication that inhibits the toxins produced by p. gingivalis. The even better news is that it has the potential to stop the progression of Alzheimer’s Disease, and may even reverse or prevent it altogether.

Alzheimer’s Disease has become the fifth-leading cause of death among Americans over the age of 65, with two-thirds of the victims being women, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. If current trends continue, someone in the country will develop Alzheimer’s every 33 seconds by 2050. Yet the exact causes of Alzheimer’s remain a mystery.

Past research suggests that a build-up of plaque in the brain due to deposits of amyloid beta and malfunctioning “tau” proteins may play a role, though the mechanism is not fully understood. However, a more recent study has discovered that the brains of many people past 90 contain amyloid plaques and other signs of Alzheimer’s, yet they show no signs of the disease.

What several researchers working independently are now finding is that p. gingivalis can actually infect the same regions of the brain that are affected by Alzheimer’s Disease. One scientific publication reported that mice genetically engineered to contract Alzheimer’s experienced worsening symptoms when exposed to the gingivitis bacterial – and even caused inflammation and plaque build-up in the brains of otherwise healthy, normal animals.

One study carried out at Cortexyme, Inc., a small San Francisco pharmaceutical firm, examined brain tissue samples from a total of 54 Alzheimer’s patients, and discovered signs of p. gingivalis infection in all but two of them. Those who had the worst declines in cognitive function had the highest level of infection as well as higher levels of amyloid plaques.

For the past few years, Cortxyme has been focusing on the development of a narrow-spectrum antibiotic that will target p. gingivalis without harming beneficial microbes. Last October, the company reported that the product had passed its first safety tests in human volunteers, and was found to be “well tolerated” in both healthy patients and those with Alzheimer’s.

This year the plan is to put the new medication through more extensive Phase 2 clinical trials. Although the primary goal is to develop a vaccine for gingivitis, the possibility that it could treat and even prevent Alzheimer’s could have a major impact in helping people to not only live longer but to remain mentally sharp as well.

In the meantime, be sure to brush after every meal and use floss regularly.

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K.J. McElrath is a former history and social studies teacher who has long maintained a keen interest in legal and social issues. In addition to writing for The Ring of Fire, he is the author of two published novels: Tamanous Cooley, a darkly comic environmental twist on Dante's Inferno, and The Missionary's Wife, a story of the conflict between human nature and fundamentalist religious dogma. When not engaged in journalistic or literary pursuits, K.J. works as an entertainer and film composer.